Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Seeking fairness in the face of the extremist critics of the poor

In the midst of the nation's economic crisis, complete with its trillion dollar bailout plans of various types, comes the news that American International Group (AIG)--recent recipient of over $170 billion in federal bailout funds--will go ahead with plans to pay a group of top executives $100 million in "retention" pay.

Now get this: The group of AIG executives in line for these bonus payments work in the very division or group that is responsible for most of the company's financial woes, failures that now threaten the entire economy.

I've tried to be reasonable on this latest revelation from AIG.

I've read the reports in The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times. I've listened to the arguments from company leaders that AIG may open itself to legal battles if it doesn't go ahead and pay previously agreed upon incentives and bonuses. I've even tried to imagine how this particular group of executives could be considered "essential" to helping AIG through the "work out" process for failed and extremely complicated investment instruments known as "derivatives." These were the very same employees who created the problem in the first place!

I've tried, but I'm far, far from convinced. In my worldview these employees should be thanking their lucky stars that they still have a job of any kind. Bonuses? Surely they jest!

But much more significant for me, and continually swirling in the background noise of the current national atmosphere, are the voices of those who for decades now have been harshly, unfairly, ignorantly and mercilessly critical of the poor in this nation who have turned to us as a nation for a "hand up" out of the continual and very real "Depression" that has ravaged their families during these same decades.

The urban poor seek and have sought only an equal opportunity--not wealth, not a fortune, not wild, unjustified bonus pay for terrible work product. No, just access to adequate, nutritional food. An opportunity to receive the work training necessary to earn a livable wage. An open door for their children to get a good education that might lead them to university work. Decent health care. Housing that is affordable and fit for human habitation. Fairness in criminal courts and a voice before the civil bench. The list reads like a commentary on the ordinary stuff of American life. No luxury, just fair, decent and hopeful.

I've listened to extreme critics of the poor speak of these fellow Americans with harshness, judgment, hatred, ridicule, and disdain. Often the criticism has been couched in racist terms and categories.

Reality for the poor is so terribly different than these ill-informed critics imagine.

The sort of fraud, mismanagement and disgrace that we've observed on Wall Street since last fall simply does not occur among the poor and those in our government groups who attempt to assist them.

Have you ever tried to fill out an application for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Department of Agriculture's Food Stamp program? Not an easy task.

Or, how about a Medicaid or Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) application? Possibly gone through the process to receive Supplemental Security Income to help make it through life with some disabling medical condition?

Ever try to get a unit of public housing? How about a housing choice voucher for your family? The waiting lists drag applicants out for years and years!

Or, maybe you've worked through a Pell Grant doucment as you tried to help your child get into college and past all of the financial documentation that must be supplied even when you have so little money for which to account!

I've said it before, but it needs to be said again: if Wall Street were regulated like the programs designed to assist and lift the poor, the nation would not be facing the current financial meltdown. The poor in this country face needless and undue complications and clearly "engineered" difficulty to gain the basics for life from the public sector.

The scope and scale of any fraud that occurs in the world of social services and poverty programming pales in comparison to the cost and size of the institutionalized fraud that has been going on in the for-profit sector for decades. Now, we pay the tab for the criminal, unethical and immoral acts of the nation's new generation robber barons.

No, enough already of the hateful and unjust criticism of the poor who simply seek a better shot at a better life. No more of the unsubstantiated accusations of "fraud" and theft by the poor who "rip off the system."

No more!

The time has come to open our eyes to the real fraud, the actual abuse. As is usually the case, the actual "rip off" occurs thanks to the shenanigans orchestrated by the powerful, the well-to-do, the greedy, the wise-guys, the well-connected and the rich.

No surprises here. Just time for a reminder.

The headlines today turn our attention to the real problems we face. Their source will not be discovered among the poor, I can assure you of that. So, just save your breath if you're tempted to blame them.

It's time we woke up. It's time we spoke up and stood up for those who struggle with poverty, and not for those who've caused so much of it. It is far past time for us to engage in the work of seeking a better life for our neighbors at the bottom of this economy.

"Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." Proverbs 31:9



Daniel Gray said...

It irks me that "bonuses" have somehow become contractual and expected -- these expectations are the the heart of everything that is flawed in our system. I agree -- there is a huge gap in financial expectations placed on the poor versus the rich. We micromanage the small amount of pittances given to the poor, and yet we open up the floodgates of deregulation for the wealthy and corporate interests. It's a shame, but it reflects our bias that the wealthy are always shrewd and honest, while the poor are shifty and untrustworthy.

Woe to you rulers of America -- you force the poor to strain out the gnat while you swallow the camel without even flinching.

belinda said...

Thank you for saying this. You're - as always - right on track!

Chris said...

The President and Congress knew about the bonuses a year ago. They are pretending to be angry now to distract from the falling poll numbers of Obama.

Where is the outrage over $93 billion of the $173 billion AIG received that went to European banks and Goldman Sachs? There is no outrage. Goldman Sachs was a heavy contributor to the Obama campaign. Could there be a connection?

Tom Jackson said...

The problem isn't new; Hunter Thompson nailed it in 1964, in an article on itinerant workers:

"...the paradox of a nation that has given so much to those who preach the glories of rugged individualism from the security of countless corporate sinecures, and so little to that diminishing band of yesterday's refugees who still practice it..."

Larry James said...

Chris, you miss my point, or maybe you just don't like dealing with my points. If what you say is true, and likely it is about European banks (not the President's motives), it makes perfect sense in our world of international monetary systems with all sorts of interlocking financial arrangements, etc. The scale of foreign banking institutions invested in American debt is a bit overwhelming. . .but, we've loved it until now.

Anonymous said...

and now we know how the AIG folks were given the authorization to pay out these bonuses - Christopher Dodd and President Obama made it their personal mission to put a provision in the Relief Plan to make sure these bonuses and other payments by AIG were made. And even worse, Dodd at first denied it when he was asked point blank about it and only when he knew he had been bustred did he come clean... bit only after spilling the beans that Obama pressured him to put the provision in. If you want to be disgusted with someone - look no further than the Savior and his disciple, Christopher Dodd. this group running the show now is no different than Bush and his gang of thieves.


Anonymous said...

It is hard to believe our elected leaders - all of them - could hand over BILLIONS without realizing some of this money could be used to pay things like contractual bonuses. They should have used their leverage while they had it and not waited until it actually happened.

Anonymous said...

At the end of this interview there is a question about what we should most attend to, poverty or terriorism. Of course poverty kills more than terriorism, but why are we afraid of the later.

His explanation uses research to show why our brains can be manipulate to over value some risk, while failing to attend to others.

Real understanding and new learning.....